A final report on the sex-abuse scandal prepared for the US bishops has found no single factor responsible for clerical abuse.
The rise in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by social factors in society generally,” said the independent report. The study found that some priests were unprepared for the pressures brought on by the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, especially the influence of the sexual revolution. The study specifically rejected claims that the sex-abuse problem was fueled by clerical celibacy or by homosexuality within the ranks of the clergy.
The 300-page report, entitled The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, was prepared by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and released by the US bishops’ conference on May 18. The Causes and Context study was the second major report prepared by John Jay for the US hierarchy. Prepared over a period of five years, the study was commissioned by the American bishops at a cost of $1.8 million.
The study reported that sexual abuse by priests reached a peak in the 1960s and 1970s. The John Jay report noted the turmoil of that era, and suggested that some priests were caught up in forces of the sexual revolution. Many early reports on the John Jay study scoffed at that analysis, calling it the “blame Woodstock” explanation for the abuse crisis.
The John Jay study rejected two common attempts to explain the outbreak of sexual abuse: the liberal claim that celibacy is responsible and the conservative suspicion that homosexual priests are to blame. In fact, the John Jay report said, the incidence of sexual abuse began to decrease in the late 1970s, at a time when—according to the study—the number of homosexual priests was rising. Thus the report found that an increasing acceptance of homosexual priests was associated with “a decreased incidence of abuse—not an increased incidence of abuse.”
The Causes and Context report concluded that the overwhelming preponderance of young male victims reflected the fact that abusive priests had more access to boys than girls. On the other hand, the John Jay study notes that only about 5 percent of the priests who abused children could be classified as true pedophiles, since most of the victims were not young children. While true pedophiles typically show no preference for boys or girls, the statistics show that adolescent boys formed the largest group of abuse victims.
The John Jay report praised the American Catholic hierarchy for taking steps to protect children from abuse, and asserts that “safe environment” programs will make it easier to identify and punish abusers in the future. The study did not directly address the fact that in the scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church, many abusers were identified, but not disciplined.
Nor did the John Jay study address the lingering questions about the credibility of the American bishops, who remain responsible for implementing their own sex-abuse guidelines. David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) was dismissive of the study. “Predictably and conveniently, the bishops have funded a report that says what they’ve said all along, and what they wanted to hear back,” he charged.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the American bishops’ conference, showed some sensitivity to the early criticism of the report, emphasizing that the study was not done by the bishops themselves. Complaining that some critics have chided the bishops for the report, the archbishop said: “Once again, they are not our conclusions at all, but those of an acclaimed academic institution specializing in this sensitive area.”
Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist who has treated many troubled priests, said that the statistical evidence in the John Jay report clearly indicated a connection with homosexuality: a connection that the report itself denied. Fitzgibbons said that “analysis of the research demonstrates clearly that the major cause of the crisis was the homosexual abuse of males.” He added that the John Jay College authors, who are experts in criminology rather than psychology, “lack the professional expertise to comment on causes of sexual abuse.”
Historian David O’Brien questioned the study’s conclusion that social upheaval during the 1960s and 1970s was a major factor in the rise of clerical abuse. That explanation, he said, created the impression that the American bishops are blaming society for the problem, rather than admitting their own culpability for the failure to stop priestly abuse.
Spokesmen for victims generally took a similar line, protesting that the report downplayed the role of the hierarchy in shielding abusers.
The president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights released an in-depth critique of the John Jay report. In his 24-page analysis, William Donohue was especially critical of the study’s claim that clerical homosexuality was not a major factor in the scandal. Carefully scrutinizing the data, he claimed that the evidence contained in the document suggests that homosexuality was a very important influence. Moreover, Donohue argued, the John Jay study neglected additional evidence that would strengthen the connection with homosexuality. For example:
St. Luke’s Institute is the most premier treatment center in the nation for troubled priests, and according to its co-founder, Rev. Michael Peterson, “We don’t see heterosexual pedophiles at all.” If this is true, how can it be that the John Jay study failed to pick this up?
Donohue faulted the John Jay researchers for relying on testimony from groups like SNAP and Voice of the Faithful, which have proven to be consistently hostile to the Catholic hierarchy. He argued that the report provides an explanation of the bishops’ failure to remove abusive priests from ministry, since psychologists regularly testified that the priests would not offend again. “Well, it is painfully obvious by now that the psychologists oversold their competence,” Donohue observed.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!